Library receives priceless pieces of life's passion

by Bruce Mason
Staff writer

There are 12,000 books and 1,700 artifacts in the collection that Dr. Wally Chung, his wife Dr. Madeline H. Chung and their family are donating to UBC. University Librarian Catherine Quinlan says the gift, valued in the millions of dollars, is priceless.

"It is a unique and invaluable chronicle of so many aspects of B.C. and Canadian history," says Quinlan.

"A collection of this magnitude and significance brings the UBC Library's collections to a new level of enrichment and presents tremendous opportunities for interdisciplinary research and collaboration with many of UBC's academic units as well as the Museum of Anthropology," she adds.

"I have been asking myself what I was going to do with all this and who will look after it and enjoy it," Chung shrugs as he walks through irreplaceable, immaculate treasure that fills four rooms of his basement. "I spent so much time collecting it that I don't want it to be split up and dispersed."

His face beams as he begins to share the sheer joy of discovering rare books and objects in a lifetime obsession that began with a small boy's fascination.

"In my father's tailor shop in Victoria there was a poster of a big white beautiful ship steaming out of an Asian harbour with the sun setting behind it heading for the New World," he remembers.

It was the Empress of Asia, one of the Canadian Pacific Railway's trans-oceanic luxury liners that was the pride of the country's maritime fleet and the vessel that brought his mother from China.

He began cutting newspaper clippings and hoarding calendars, matchbooks, posters and silverware -- any and every CPR collectible he could lay his hands on.

Years later, in 1953, when he had graduated from McGill University's medical school, he got even more serious. After finishing surgical training at the Vancouver General Hospital and joining UBC's medical school, he combed bookstores and second-hand shops in earnest, locally and in New York, Chicago and London between medical conferences.

"I found this in a basement of a condo in Toronto," he says pointing to a builder's model more than four metres long, which gleams in a glass case. "It had been stored in an unheated basement for 30 years and was in terrible condition. The paint was flaking off, a funnel was broken and a professional modeller said it would take three years of work by two men and tens of thousands of dollars to restore it."

Instead Chung reclaimed the exquisite detail himself in a labour of love which occupied 4,000 hours and many, many late nights.

It took three archivists six months just to catalogue the one-of a-kind items in the collection which span time, borders and cultures. They are pieces of a puzzle collected over a lifetime to complete a vision and an odyssey which led from CPR memorabilia to a unique and important documentation of the Asian experience in North America and West Coast history.

There are champagne buckets and bedpans, railway timetables and "Stop the Oriental Menace!" pamphlets, first editions of books chronicling Cook's and Vancouver's voyages to the Pacific, the correspondence of nation builders and the photograph of the first person of Chinese descent born in B.C. They fill large gaps in history and tell innumerable and otherwise forgotten stories.

"It took a great deal of time and effort and we want people to enjoy it," says Chung, who will continue to add to the collection. "We are giving it to UBC so as many people as possible can have the opportunity to understand and appreciate the struggles and the joys of those who have come before them."